Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/May 2019/Book reviews

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John Curtin's War: Volume II - by John Edwards

Official Portrait of Curtin by Antonio Dattilo Rubbo

3/5 stars

By Hawkeye7

The second volume of John Edwards's work on John Curtin takes up immediately where the first left off without skipping a beat, so it cannot be read separately unless you're really familiar with Australian political figures of the period. This may annoy some readers for whom the events covered by this volume are of greater interest. Far too many books on the Pacific War are about 1942, and relatively few about 1943-45. This has generated misunderstandings.

In places, Edwards expounds his thesis with great clarity. In explaining Curtin's relationship with American general Douglas MacArthur, he writes:

MacArthur had a genius for war, a talent for command, and an aggressive spirit. A lesser Australian leader might have grated against MacArthur's vanity, cavilled at his assumption of command, contradicted his grandiloquent claims, satirised his manner. Curtin did not. He seized the chance to share authority with MacArthur, refused to offend his vanity, drew him as close as he could. Of Curtin's military decisions, it was the cleverest, most fruitful, most abidingly successful. (p. 18)

One might also place many populist would-be historians in the lesser lights category.

Edwards rightly considers the Income Tax Act (1942) one of the most enduring legacies of the Curtin administration, but his explanation falls short for a reader unfamiliar with it. A cursory read may leave the reader thinking it was a wartime expedient based on the defence power (Section 51(vi)) with no long-lasting effect other than the fact that we still have federal income tax. On the contrary, it not only created a permanent change of the fiscal balance between the Commonwealth and the states, with the High Court decision in the First Uniform Tax case, completely and permanently altered the constitutional basis of taxation in Australia through the canny use of Section 96. (The notion that it depended on the defence power was rejected by the High Court in the Second Uniform Tax case in 1957.)

In the discussion of the fight over conscription for overseas service (Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943), Edwards provides a blow-by-blow account of Curtin's deft political manoeuvrings, demonstrating how he exercised his mastery of the political process, overcoming the opposition of the powerful Catholic Church, the occasional misstep and the sometimes erratic interventions of renegade colleagues. That Curtin was gaoled for his own opposition to conscription during the Great War is kept in context. That the final resolution achieved Curtin's political objective of removing a major political obstacle to attaining majority government at the next election (and incidentally strengthened his support from the Communist left) is clearly stated; that it achieved no military benefit (with undesirable consequences in 1944-45) is passed over.

While the politics of the war against Germany have received plenty of attention, those of the War in the Pacific have not. In some cases, a political perspective provides insight. One example: branding the 1942 campaign in Papua as the defence of Australia because MacArthur's original charter did not include an offensive against Japan. Yet here there are still gaps and misunderstandings. Edwards notes that General Thomas Blamey told the state premiers on 14 July 1943 that Rabaul was the object of MacArthur's upcoming offensive, and alleges that "Blamey was either not told of the change in MacArthur's instructions, or chose to conceal it." (p. 178) In fact, MacArthur had not yet been instructed to bypass Rabaul, and was still debating the issue with Marshall in Washington. In general, the course of the war after 1942 is not detailed, and military operations are not covered except when Curtin was called upon to make a decision, which was not often. For this, the reader might want to instead consult Peter Dean's MacArthur's Coalition.

Edwards paints a portrait of Curtin as a true man of the people, one who avoided dignitaries. Christmas dinners at The Lodge in Canberra were with RAAF airmen (his own family being back in Perth). While Curtin was a brilliant politician, his lack of formal education, minimal experience of other places and cultures, and narrowness of vision precluded him from rising to become a statesman. His manners seemed crude and uncouth to the British and Canadians. Edwards is particularly bothered by Curtin's trenchant support of the White Australia Policy, which cannot be dismissed merely as that of a man of his time.

Curtin's concept of engaging Britain in the Far East in the post-war era to offset China and the United States harkened back to the Singapore Strategy, which he had himself had debunked, while the notion of a bloc consisting of the dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK also invoked to a time that had passed, and was never going to find favour with Canada, nor with the UK if it had to treat Australia and Canada as equals. That Britain's future lay as part of a united Europe while Australia's lay with its Asian neighbours was beyond his understanding.

Publishing details: Edwards, John (2018). John Curtin's War: Volume II - Triumph and Decline. Melbourne, Victoria: Viking. ISBN 978-0-14379-136-2. OCLC 1043833675.


Shadows on the Track - by Jan McLeod

At the Main Dressing Station (MDS) of the 2/4th Field Ambulance, Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Nicholas Chenhall (right), Commanding Officer of the 2/6th Field Ambulance, checks on the progress of an operation as the surgeon Captain Douglas Robert Leslie and another Medical Officer apply plaster to a soldier's broken left leg. To support the fractured limb during the procedure, a makeshift frame of rough wooden poles has been set up at the entrance to the tent that serves as the operating theatre.

3/5 stars

By Hawkeye7

Jan McLeod wrote her honours thesis based on the diary of her great-uncle, who served in Papua during the Second World War with the 2/4th Ambulance, and then expanded this into a PhD thesis on the medical aspects of the Papuan campaign, and now into a book. (While historians refer to the Papuan campaign, which includes Kokoda, Milne Bay and Buna, the Wikipedia has decided that these are separate campaigns.)

The pointy end of the medical establishment during the First and Second World Wars was the field ambulance. A British innovation in the wake of the Boer War, it combined the field hospital and stretcher bearers into a single unit. Each division had three of them, one for each brigade. (The book gets the organisation of a division horribly wrong on p. 39, probably due to poor proof reading.) As the book describes, the field ambulances operated Advanced Dressing Stations close to the front, and a Main Dressing Station (a field hospital) further back. The field ambulance collected casualties from the Regimental Aid Posts at the front, and sent them back to the Casualty Clearing Station in the rear, which in turn delivered them to the General Hospital, located somewhere in the base area.

The military medical establishment had what we might call a matrix organisation, with the medical heads at each level responsible to their commander through the adjutant general's branch, but also a technical line of authority to the head of medical services at the next level of command. At the division level there was an Assistant Director of Medical Services (ADMS); at corps, a Deputy Director of Medical Services (DDMS); at army, a Director of Medical Services (DMS); and in overall change in the army as a whole, a Director General of Medical Services (DGMS). In this case, the ADMS was Colonel Frank Kingsley Norris at 7th Division; the DDMS was Brigadier William Johnston at New Guinea Force; and the DGMS was Major General Roy Burston. The medical service jealously guarded its independence, and it was often unclear who had power to appoint and relieve medical officers.

A case in point is the relief of Johnston by Brigadier Clive Disher (inexplicably called "lieutenant colonel" on p. 264). McLeod makes a strong case that Johnston was incompetent, or at least completely out of his depth in Papua. He was one of the senior officers relived by Lieutenant General Edmund Herring - whose name is nowhere mentioned by McLeod - that also included Brigadier Arnold Potts and Major General Arthur Allen. The relief of Johnston has never attracted the same level of interest. The causes of the chaos in Papua are clearly stated: over-estimation of friendly forces, under-estimation of the enemy, shortages of resources, and outright maladministration, as evidenced by shipping the 2/4th Field Ambulance to Papua after the brigade it was supporting, which went into action while it was still at sea. In particular, there was a disastrous decision to cease suppressive treatment for malaria. Coupled with Blamey's otherwise justifiable decision that those suffering from disease should be retained in Papua where possible, this resulted in overwhelming the base hospitals with malaria cases.

McLeod repeats the wartime belief that exhaustion and malnourishment led to increased risk of malaria. This has since been shown to be untrue. She also uses the wartime designations for the disease, referring to benign tertian and malignant tertian malaria. Unfortunately, our articles on malaria do not define these obsolete terms, preferring the more modern designations, Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum respectively. Needless to say, "benign" is only so compared with the more severe form. From a military point of view, malaria was a problem due to the large numbers of casualties; the death rate was relatively low, and treatment was available, although McLeod notes that at least one soldier died from the cure rather than the disease. The Army's objective was to get soldiers back to the front as soon as possible, and evacuation to Australia would only delay this.

In addition to personnel, the medical service maintained its own supply chain. Allowing each technical service to do this worked when the supply pipeline was adequate. In Papua, it was not, leading to severe shortages. Was it better to ship medical supplies to treat casualties or more ammunition to reduce casualties by ending the battle more quickly? A systemic issue was the British staff structure, which made it difficult to allocate priorities between competing demands. And then there is the infamous Rule Number Two.

There is some thought-provoking material here, but the author never really pulls it all together and tackles the big issues.

Publishing details: McLeod, Jan (2019). Shadows on the Track: Australia's Medical War in Papua 1942-1943: Kokoda - Milne Bay - The Beachhead Battles. Newport, NSW: Blue. ISBN 978-1-925675-90-0. OCLC 1066072104.


Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations - by Ronen Bergman

A Sayeret Matkal operator

4/5 stars

By Peacemaker67

I read this book as a bit of a break from my primary areas of editing effort after my interest was piqued reading a review last year. Bergman is an Israeli investigative journalist who has a good track record for examining secret or special operations conducted by Israel, and now works for the New York Times. The book takes a generally chronological rather than thematic approach to targeted killing operations conducted by Israeli intelligence and military organisations since before the creation of Israel. I was surprised by the number of special operations units deployed by the Israeli Defence Force to undertake these assassinations, along with the units of the intelligence agencies Mossad and Shin Bet that have supported and often undertaken these missions on their own. The military units involved in some of these killing missions include Unit 101, Shayetet 13 (Navy), Sayeret Matkal (Army), and the Shaldag Unit (Air Force), who have been supported by Aman, the military intelligence directorate, and its electronic intelligence element, Unit 8200. There are several other smaller units mentioned in the book, including the Samson Unit and Duvdevan Unit, both of which conducted plainclothes operations.

Bergman's long narrative (some 630 pages) is a little on the sensational side at times, but he has had incredible access to veterans of these killing programs, along with documentary evidence, in the writing of the book, and it is passably footnoted and referenced. The number of well-known Israeli politicians that feature in its pages is remarkable, and shows that these operations have been a strategy or tactic regularly resorted to by the Israeli government over the years. Key among the assassinations and attempted killings covered by the book include those of British colonial overlords, Nazis, German rocket scientists working for Gamal Abdel Nasser, Palestine Liberation Organization figures like Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), the Black September terrorists that carried out the 1972 Munich massacre, the founder of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin, along with more recent targets.

While there is a bit of Israeli triumphalism peeking through at times, the limitations of targeted killings are well explored, and the negative impacts of the killings of Abu Jihad and Yassin are examined in some detail, along with the many successes and failures that such high-stakes operations involve. I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the questions of international and human rights law that these types of operations raise, as they are rather glossed over in my opinion. The book would be a useful source for our articles on the various IDF units and intelligence agencies mentioned within, although other sources will be needed to properly explore the legal and moral aspects of such programs.

Publishing details: Bergman, Ronen (2018). Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations. London: John Murray. ISBN 978-1-473-69471-2.


Recent external reviews

O'Hara, Vincent P.; Dickson, W. David; Worth, Richard, eds. (2013). To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 9781612510828.

Bouverie, Tim (2019). Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War. London: Bodley Head. ISBN 9781847924407.

Matthews, Owen (2019). An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781408857786.


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